Kathleen Scollins. Acts of Logos in Pushkin and Gogol: Petersburg Texts and Subtexts.
St. Petersburg, writes Kathleen Scollins, is uniquely beholden to the Word; spoken into life by Peter on the site of a (discursively constructed) emptiness, it appeared as a city without history, where "mythology rushe[d] in to fill out the missing narrative" (xiv). In this innovative and insightful approach to five canonical works, Scollins analyzes the texts that proliferated in Peter's new, semi-mythical city, analyzing the function of verbal expression in the "early Petersburg texts" of Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol.
Scollins's attention to detail, richness of sources, and incisive close readings do not fail to impress throughout. To call her discussion and references wide-ranging would be an understatement: a reader who picks up her volume expecting "merely" to learn about Pushkin, Gogol, and the Petersburg text (each a major topic in its own right) may be surprised to also encounter topics as diverse as Pushkin's interest in Hebrew (10) and an 1829 article in The Moscow Herald arguing that the human face and body is encoded, via divine inspiration, into ancient alphabets (186). What is doubly impressive is that the many texts and parallels Scollins brings to her study are convincingly relevant and even come to feel indispensable.
Scollins writes that "Peter's defining act assumed mythologized form almost instantly in the national psyche" (xvi). A proliferation of Petersburg texts arose in response to this act of sacralization, their protagonists not only inhabiting but engaging in dialogue with Peter's city. This would later give rise to the theory of the Petersburg Text, represented by scholars such as semiotician Vladimir Toporov; this field receives an excellent treatment in the introduction of Scollins's book (xxi-xxvii). In her corrective to the existing models, Scollins aims to reveal "the linguistic origins of the Petersburg mythos and reinstate the creative Word as the basis and unifying principle of the Petersburg Text" (xxviii). She focuses her readings on the conflicts enacted on the Petersburg stage by the protagonists of Pushkin and Gogol.
Scollins brings in five different "subtexts" in order to read them in parallel with the main texts, creating five text pairings, one for each chapter and major work. This structuring decision does much to keep the potential chaos of information in check. Readers raising their eyebrows at any of the pairings are likely to retract their skepticism by the end of the chapter in question, since Scollins's justifications invariably prove to be impeccably argued and sourced. These subtexts illuminate the conflict over language in the early Petersburg text, which is dominated by variously epic and petty battles between "fathers"--the descendants of Peter, exemplified by figures as dissimilar as the imposing stroitel' chudotvornyi (wonderworking builder) of The Bronze Horseman and the brash tailor Petrovich of "The Overcoat"--and the wayward "sons," the calculating Germanns and pitifully protesting Akaky Akakyeviches, who dare to raise a challenge to the verbal order of Peter's city.
Chapter 1 reads The Bronze Horseman through the Book of Job. After a history of Pushkin's engagement with the biblical story (7-13), the showdown between defiant Evgeny and the thundering statue is analyzed as a response to the Job plot and as a verbal battle between Creator and subject. Both texts are "bound by their refusal to offer an unambiguous message" (3), failing to straightforwardly praise or condemn the autocrats or the challengers. Evgeny's protest is dangerous, carrying "enough power to destabilize an empire" (36), and indeed, he has the literal last word: Evgeny "effectively appropriate[s] the creative logos from Peter" (37). This particular challenge is struck down--but its disruption of Peter's verbal order paves the way for future rebels. In chapter 2, Scollins turns to a savvier upstart who nevertheless suffers a similarly painful defeat: Germann, the ambitious parvenu of "The Queen of Spades." Germann is a beneficiary of Peter's new system of social advancement, which has allowed him to achieve a respectable position despite his humble origins and German ancestry; however, he is tempted by a newer and riskier method--that of quick advancement through Catherinian favoritism. This story "dramatizes the clash between these two eighteenth-century modes of displacing the nobility" (61). The subtextual connection in this chapter--the fateful playing card deck and the Table of Ranks--is perhaps the least well-supported of the five parallels, but the conclusions drawn about Germann are no less convincing.
In the remaining chapters, Scollins turns to Gogol. Chapter 3 discusses "Nevsky Prospect" together with the image of the hellmouth from Christian iconography, presenting the tale as a conflict between the visual and the verbal/ oral in which neither fully triumphs. Nevsky itself is "figured as an all-consuming mouth of hell," "a mouth that no longer expresses, but devours" (84); this is a travesty of the divine vision of St. Petersburg, "no longer associated with the "life-giving Word but rather with an orifice that ingests and excretes" (122). Another such parody is on display in chapter 4 (the wonderfully titled "Mertvye ushi"), which reads "The Nose" as a travesty of the motif of the Annunciation, where the incarnation of the divine in human form is replaced with the absurd transposition of Kovalev's nose into his barber's slice of bread. Scollins argues that this farce implicates the foundations of Petersburg, which appears as "a city founded and held together by the Word of a pretender god" (172).
Chapter 5 contains perhaps the most surprising and creative treatment of this study: a reading of "The Overcoat" against the anxiety engendered among Russian writers by Peter's alphabet reforms. Bloodless as Petrine policies went, they nevertheless left behind a series of victims: among other orthographic features, four letters were culled from the alphabet (180-82), provoking anxious debates among writers and critics. Against this background, Scollins argues, hapless Akaky Akakyevich acts as a stand-in for the middling letter K or Kako. Akaky is a connoisseur of letters (but not meaning), and his "textual insatiability" (191) coexists with his own status as a letter: "no mere duplicator of letters, he himself is a duplicated letter" (192). A copier in a world of other copiers (even the narrator is an appropriator--of verbal forms and fashionable literary conventions; 196), Akaky is only able to "step out of line" and find verbal expression in the extremes of death and loss, "finally advanc[ing] k slovu" (218).
Scollins's project is both ambitious and admirably successful. Her chosen approach does carry a few limitations: the framing of the material necessarily limits the works under consideration, leaving open the question of how her insights into Pushkin and Gogol here would translate to their settings outside of St. Petersburg; similarly, only major canonical works are discussed. And although many of the fields and subfields invoked in the text contribute to the discussion, a few seem superfluous. These are minor complaints about an impressive study, however. Scollins's sourcing and footnotes are excellent throughout, making her book an invaluable reference, and for scholars of Pushkin, Gogol, and the Petersburg text, this inventive and profoundly researched work is indispensable.